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BRITISH TRANSPORT DOCKS (FELIXSTOWE) BILL (By Order)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th May 1976.

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Photo of Mr Kenneth Weetch Mr Kenneth Weetch , Ipswich 12:00 am, 24th May 1976

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Very little of consequence has altered since the Second Reading of the Bill and, more particularly, since it was considered in the House last week. There is little to be said for wholesale repetition of arguments used in previous stages, and I intend to take up very little of the time of the House because there are hon. Members on both sides who wish to speak.

When the smoke and dust has cleared from this battle, the main issue will remain precisely as it was. The impressive history of the development of the port of Felixstowe is admitted by everybody who has taken part in the debate, and the transformation of Felixstowe by the pioneers, to whom I pay tribute, from a silted backwater to a port of great importance has an exciting ring.

But there were other factors. The first was the geographical position of Felixstowe in relation to the rapidly developing region of East Anglia which has caused expansion in all the haven ports, including, for example, Ipswich, whose development, ownership and control is substantially different from that of Felixstowe.

Felixstowe has also benefited from the technical revolution in cargo handling because it has had no residual hangover of the older, more traditional methods. In the older ports, transition from the old to the new involved very complex changes for the work force and threw up very different problems in management. Felixstowe port, if I may put it this way, developed in the new container era, and the difficulties of transition were not great. However, even though these two points are conceded, perhaps, the emergence of Felixstowe has been impressive and the evidence is there for all to see.

There is, however, another piece of evidence, to which I wish to draw the attention of the House. What sort of private enterprise development, I asked myself, does Felixstowe port represent? To find out, I looked at the gearbox of free enterprise in any company—the balance sheet. I should like to quote from the report and accounts of the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company for 1975, page 23, section 13, headed "Stock and Loan Capital". The total debentures, loans and overdrafts in 1975 came to £7,610,164. Of that figure £2,718,545 was a secured loan from Department of the Environment at rates of interest varying between 6 per cent. and 16⅛ per cent., repayable at various dates up to 1994. Secondly, over £1 million-worth is of secured loans from the Department of the Environment at rates of interest varying between 6 per cent. and 16½ per cent. Therefore, out of a total of just under £7¾ million, £4 million represents Government money.

What sort of pure free enterprise development is that? It simply does not stand up to close examination. State aid has been forthcoming even in the heyday of private enterprise of this port. That is an inescapable fact.

At present, concerning the port of Felixstowe we are in a new ball game altogether. Last year Felixstowe reached a point at which the directors of the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company realised that changes were needed. In particular, there was the realisation that continuing and substantial injections of capital investment were needed. Secondly, in addition, a new era is at hand with the National Dock Labour Scheme and the complex changes that that will bring about. These and other factors now intrude on to the situation. The future will be more complex, and more sophisticated techniques will be needed.

Here we come to the crux of the whole matter. The essence of this argument in principle is that with this new situation, given a choice between European Ferries, even with the flair and profitability which that company represents, and the British Transport Docks Board, the latter having experience of 19 ports of varied conditions over a wide geographical area, long experience of operating within the National Dock Labour Scheme and the weight of experience behind it of port ownership and control under complex modern conditions, it is a more rational and more advantageous choice for the port, for East Anglia and the nation that it should go to the latter rather than to European Ferries, which in the last resort has no such experience and, in the end, is a shipping company.